Even in a historic neighborhood like Fells Point, the one-story rowhouses stand out. Paint peeling, roof buckling, they look every bit as old as their more than 200 years.
Baltimore historians say they’re an important reminder of a forgotten Black community whose members included Frederick Douglass.
From around 1830 to 1850, Black laborers dominated Baltimore’s ship caulking industry, ensuring that the ships that left Baltimore’s harbor were watertight. It was demanding and important work, and they were able to band together and negotiate higher wages than would have been available to other free Black workers at the time.
In 1838, they created the Caulkers Association, one of the nation’s first Black trade unions.
“They worked really hard and kind of against all odds were able to form a place for themselves,” said Sarah Groesbeck, an architectural historian who sits on the board of The Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fells Point.
And some of them lived at 612-614 S. Wolfe St.
Groesbeck’s group is raising money to save these vacant old houses, which it has owned for decades.
A recent $100,000 grant provided the funds needed for the initial stabilization. Workers are currently shoring up the walls of the houses by installing a temporary support system inside. During a recent visit, a barrier had been erected outside. The homes looked and felt precarious, as if a heavy rain could cause them to crumble.
“Usually when you work on buildings of this age it’s because it [belonged to] someone really wealthy,” said Lawrence Worthington, lead carpenter on the project.
But these one-room houses with attic spaces overhead clearly belonged to people who didn’t expect their names to live on for posterity.
“I like the humility of it,” Worthington said. “It’s just Baltimore first getting started.”
The trees for the structure’s 18-inch slats were probably felled nearby.
As ship caulkers, free and enslaved workers labored side by side. Douglass, who was born into slavery in Maryland, worked at several shipyards in Baltimore including Gardiner’s shipyard, on the northeast corner of Lancaster and Wolfe streets.
The Black workers’ monopoly on the ship caulking industry drew the ire of white Baltimore workers, said archaeologist Lisa Kraus. Native-born, white Marylanders formed violent gangs and attacked Black workers in the shipyards. Public pressure from white Marylanders eventually caused many shipyards to fire Black workers.
In later writings, Douglass recounts the abuse that free Black workers at Gardiner’s shipyard suffered at the hands of their white counterparts. At one point, he was brutally assaulted by four white men.
“I am almost amazed that I was not murdered outright in that ship yard, so murderous was the spirit which prevailed there,” Douglass wrote.
But the ship caulkers’ stories also are ones of strength. In the 19th century, the ship caulkers formed The East Baltimore Mental Improvement Society to teach people in the area how to read and do math. Douglass was a member — and, Groesbeck said, may have visited some of the homes on Wolfe Street to attend meetings.
Kraus and her husband, Jason Shellenhamer, spent several weekends excavating the ground beneath the South Wolfe Street homes as well as the privies that dot their backyards. Among their findings have been slate and chalk, which caulkers and their families used as tools to help educate their community.
“Not only are people working insane hours … you also have this after-hours education going on in the home,” Kraus said.
The address of the homes has changed over the years. 612 S. Wolfe St. was originally 65 Wolfe St., then 197 S. Wolfe St. 614 was originally 57 Wolfe St., then 199 S. Wolfe St., Groesbeck said. City directories and census records show that everyone who lived in the homes, including the children, worked.
Some of the most interesting archaeological findings came in the form of food remains, which included plenty of oyster shells. There also were more unexpected findings, including rabbit, deer, opossum, raccoon and terrapin — which would later become synonymous with the Chesapeake region’s finest food offerings.
“There’s a huge diversity in the kinds of foods that they’re eating and an indication of the skill required to prepare them,” Kraus said. While the caulkers’ lives weren’t easy, they were also “smart, politically savvy and economically powerful,” she added.
Ultimately, Groesbeck wants to see the homes become a community center, and testament to the neighborhood’s forgotten community of Black workers. The Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fells Point is still looking for community partners to help complete the project, which Groesbeck said will likely cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
She’s committed to seeing the project through. The houses, she said, are “treasures now, even if they were common in the past.”